Southern Road Trip

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More than a year ago, Jeff and I started talking about a Southern road trip. The idea had several inspirations. First of all, for years we’ve chatted about the fact that neither of us has spent any time in the real South. Oklahoma and Texas are very culturally southern, but they aren’t the South. Then there was the three-part Southern Living travel series last summer that outlined a state-hopping ramble laced with grits, cocktails and Spanish moss. Finally, there was A Chef’s Life, a PBS show that has been making us hungry and homesick ever since Jeff discovered it on our Apple TV last year. It’s a powerhouse of Southern cultural preservation, and it made us want to go South.

So that’s what we did. We flew into Savannah, rented a car, and embarked on a fast-paced, six-day tour of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The trip’s itinerary went through many different incarnations (at one point, we were going to drive all the way back to Brooklyn), and our final route was shaped in part by people we wanted to visit along the way. To pack it all in, we signed ourselves up for more than 18 hours of driving. Here’s my quick rundown of where we went and what we loved:

Savannah

Our arrival in Savannah was one of the single best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Every now and then, there are things in life that are way, way better than you imagined. That was our first day in Savannah. When a place has a reputation for being beautiful, I always assume it has a few amazing streets or that you have to stand in just the right place to get the full effect. Not Savannah. Every tree is dripping with Spanish moss and almost every street in the historic district has a park-like public square. The  squares were pleasantly quiet, almost sleepy. We mostly stayed away from the river, which was touristy; everything else was divine. We were even treated to a massive thunderstorm while walking thorough Forsyth Park, only a couple hours after arriving in town. If that sounds like a bad thing, you aren’t a storm-starved Oklahoman: New York gets rain, but not storms.

 

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Eliza Thompson House—Savannah, Georgia
Our whole impression of Savannah was probably swayed by how much we loved this B&B. I think Southern hospitality can be a bit of a cliche, but it was on full display here and very genuine. I got my money’s worth out of the wine reception, too, not by getting drunk by by consuming about four deviled eggs and fistfuls of those tortilla pinwheel things.

Upper Bull Street—Savannah, Georgia
I suspect this neighborhood has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I’ll just call this block “Upper Bull Street.” We discovered it because Jeff wanted to explore Graveface Records, thanks to a tip from a friend. I have sub-zero interest in record stores, so I took a stroll and discovered several gems including the adorable Back in the Day Bakery (winner of my personal “best biscuit of the trip” award) and Starlandia, purveyor of reclaimed creative supplies (Isn’t that about the best idea you’ve ever heard?).

 

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Deeper into Georgia

Cornbread Cafe—Wrightsville, Georgia
I’m almost convinced that our Garmin can read minds. She always knows the right thing to do in every situation without any additional input from me (I don’t know how to use her interface well enough to give her any guidance aside from an address.) When we set out to drive from Savannah to Athens, I was really hoping to get off the main highway and drive through the countryside, and that’s exactly what Garmin told us to do. We ended up on two-lane country highways for hours (mostly Highway 15, I think). At  lunchtime, we stopped for gas in Wrightsville, and I asked the clerk if there was anywhere we should eat. She sent us across the street to the Cornbread Cafe, a very unassuming establishment in what looked a bit like a re-purposed Hardy’s with a sign out front that said “farm picked veggies.” It was one of the gems of the trip—easily the best fried chicken I’ve had in years. What really impressed me was the long list of side items (I live for sides) including field peas, rutabaga and a very legit mac and cheese.

Athens, Georgia
Jeff was conducting an interview in Athens for a  project he’s working on, so I had a couple hours to explore by myself. I wandered into just about every store on Clayton Street before stopping for a happy hour prosecco, oysters and a watermelon salad at the Branded Butcher. I was looking at their menu and debating going in when a sweet, older farmer in overalls shuffled past me carrying a delivery of grain for the kitchen. Talk about targeted advertising—they couldn’t have scheduled him any better.

 

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The Carolinas

Brothers Farm and Chef and the Farmer—eastern North Carolina
After swinging through Asheville, North Carolina for breakfast with old friends and Durham for lunch with even older friends, we arrived in eastern North Carolina. Despite the fact that Chef and the Farmer (and more specifically, A Chef’s Life, the TV show) helped inspire our trip, we almost cut it from the itinerary because it was just so far out of the way, a real outlier. But in the eleventh hour of planning, Jeff found a link to Brothers Farm on Air B&B, and with the prospect of staying in a farmhouse instead of a Quality Inn, it suddenly felt very much worth the drive. Brothers Farm and its star occupant, Warren Brothers, are featured regularly on A Chef’s Life, so there was definitely an appeal to sleeping in a house we had seen on PBS. But more than that, I was excited to spend a night in the country. I had been  concerned that our Southern road trip wouldn’t feel truly Southern to me unless I saw a yard heavy with fireflies and woke up to the sound of cicadas. While we loved getting to visit the restaurant, we really loved getting to stay at the farm. Warren and his wife Jane were warm and casual, and their home is a version of my dream house it has, like, four porches. Warren and his right-hand, fellow farmer, Lillie, showed us around the farm and broke out some pickled beets to share. We could have stayed all day, even if (especially if) that meant helping harvest collards.

 

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Charleston, South Carolina
We were both a bit “eh” about Charleston. It felt like a cheaper, more touristy Savannah, but I’m sure our experience would have improved significantly if we had made the time to explore outside of downtown. We met up with local friends at a beautiful oyster bar called The Ordinary. Afterwards they showed us the lovely streets around the College of Charleston and recommended the City Market (on aptly-named Market Street). They also recommended Hominy Grill,  the biggest food home-run of the trip, complete with boiled peanuts. I tried she-crab soup and got a veggie plate, which was basically my dream meal: all Southern side dishes.

 

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Middleton Place—Charleston, South Carolina
I came across Middleton Place randomly on Expedia, and it was one of the luckiest finds of the trip. This old plantation has been preserved as a resort with a modern inn (all wood paneling and windows—go look at the pictures), a restaurant, and 65 acres of landscaped gardens (the oldest in America). Despite the fact that it was July 3, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. Even the pool was empty, and we swam for an hour or more, watching the light move across the water and birds land on the nearby Ashley River. After cleaning up, we walked through the gardens to the restaurant. Some of their food is grown on-site, and when I asked about the name of a scallop-edged tomato on my place, the enthusiastic young waiter admitted that he didn’t know, but said he might be able to call their resident farmer and ask. He came back later declaring it a “Genovese.” A massive thunderstorm rolled in while we ate, and we had to beg a ride back to our room from a local who was drinking at the bar. The next day, while touring the gardens, we saw an alligator on the path we would have crossed had we attempted to reach our rooms by foot in the dark. I say this by way of recommendation—the whole experience was dreamy. But take a flashlight.

 

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 ***

This was one of those “come-home-and-google-real-estate” trips. We sucked up the sound of cicadas like divers coming up for air, and my only regret is that I should have eaten more tomatoes. But that’s okay, because I’ll go back.

 

 

 

 

 

My best meal in France

Hailey and I had a simple goal for our 48 hours in Paris: Walk around and eat stuff. To some extent, that’s exactly what we did (we certainly walked around), but we ran into a few challenges when it came to eating stuff. 1) We had limited time, so we felt like we had to make every bite count, which led to paralyzing indecision. 2) We went without a plan for any specific meals or restaurants. 3) More money would have helped. 4) Restaurants and shops closed much earlier than we were expecting, especially in quiet Montmartre where our Air B&B apartment was.

But we did have good food. Here’s the story of our best meal in Paris.

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IMG_36571) First, we drank wine. About an hour earlier, after spending  eight hours walking all over the city, we completely ran out of steam in the tunnel under the Arc De Triomphe. Cold and tired, we stayed there, under one of the most famous monuments in the world, for a loooong time.  A long time, friends. We didn’t know where to go next, and, more to the point, we didn’t know where to eat. We decided to go back to Montmartre to retrieve warmer clothing and, hopefully, find something like a pastry shop where we could buy fabulous, wonderful things to take back to our apartment. On our way home, we bought wine. And we drank some. I think this informs what comes next.

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2) I love foreign grocery stores. I like seeing the eggs and milk on the dry goods shelf and the yogurt in glass cups.* Sure, I love seeing farmers’ markets and anywhere people buy food, but I have a special love for grocery stores. I like to see where people shop when it is late and they are out of other options, which is exactly the situation we found ourselves in. For about two seconds, I was sad that one of my three dinners in France would be from the equivalent of a bodega, then I got really excited. When I made it to the canned goods aisle and saw they had cassoulet with confit de canard (duck! confit! cassoulet! FANCY!), I could hardly contain myself.

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3) This was our haul: ratatouille provencale, cassoulet de castelnaudary au confit de canard du sud-ouest, bread, wine and strawberries. And yogurt, bananas and hazelnut cream for the next morning. This is the most proud I’ve ever been of canned goods I didn’t can myself. THEN, I opened the cassoulet and saw the duck legs were still on the bone. They canned the bones, ya’ll! But I guess you can do anything in France. Or with access to a pressure cooker. Best of all, it smelled good. Any doubts I had disappeared, and I went to take a quick shower while Hailey heated everything on the tiny stovetop.

4) From the moment we got to the apartment, I realized that the tiny shower had a little window that overlooked the kitchen, presumably so the otherwise interior space could enjoy a little light. Somehow, Hailey had NOT noticed the window. So when, a few minutes into my shower, I opened the window to chat with her while she was cooking, she completely LOST it. When she handed me the pan of duck legs and beans to demonstrate that one could conceivably cook while showering, well, neither of us could contain ourselves. I think it’s the hardest I’ve laughed all year. In other circumstances, it might have been a “laughed so hard we peed our pants” moment, but I, at least, wasn’t wearing any pants.

IMG_1916IMG_19185) Then we ate. And it was good—very good.

 

I’ve been thinking about this since March and pondering a few things:

1) Do normal French people ever eat canned cassoulet and ratatouille? If so, who and when? Under what circumstance?

2) This is why I love Air B&B. We would never have had this experience in a hotel because 1) we probably wouldn’t have been in a regular neighborhood with grocery stores for regular people; 2) we wouldn’t have had anywhere to cook food; 3) hotels don’t have windows in their showers.

3) As with my other most memorable meals (the naked spaghetti incident at my grandmother’s house; my first sangria experience in Spain; etc.), the quality of the food was inconsequential, almost an afterthought.  I attended a panel discussion a couple years ago at the International Culinary Center in which a researcher explained that, despite having consumed plenty of food, a French person might say, “I haven’t eaten all day” if the food she ate wasn’t shared with others, at a table, most likely with wine. It is by that standard that I deem this meal the best of the trip, by far.

 

* Don’t let me or anyone else tell you that the French have everything figured out. See that dairy shelf? That’s some kind of KitKat pudding cup there on the far left. They aren’t so perfect, those French. Or maybe they are—I like KitKats.

48 hours in Paris with my sister

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Last March, after our tour of England and the great Peter and Richard wedding extravaganza, my sister Hailey and I flew to Paris. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Hailey had never been before, I had been once about 10 years earlier, and according to my pack-it-all-in logic, it would have been a waste to fly all the way across the Atlantic and only visit one country. We considered other places, but we knew we would only have a few day and that the weather might be iffy, so we reasoned that somewhere compact with lots of indoor attractions would be a good bet. Plus, well, Paris.

I debated whether to share details or just photos and a brief sketch of the trip, but now I’m glad that I wrote all of this down back in April or I never would have remembered exactly what we did.  And reading other blogs helped me plan my trip, so maybe this will be helpful, too.

All the photos with me in them were taken by Hailey, who is far too good to spend her time taking pictures of me holding crepes.  She also recapped the trip here.

Here’s how we spent roughly 48 hours in Paris:

Day 0

I won’t start the clock on our 48 hours yet because this was mostly a travel day, and we saw even less than we had hoped thanks to some frustrations acquiring cash and getting the map to work on my iPhone. But this day has to be mentioned because of how much I loved emerging from the subway in Montmartre and (after we had deposited our bags) winding our way up to Sacre-Coeur just after sunset. I think Hailey and I would both rather forget just how long we wandered around trying to decide where to eat before settling on a random cafe and calling it a night.

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IMG_3625 Day 1

Starting at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro stop (across from Les Deux Magots), we meandered toward Gerard Mulot Boulangerie to grab some pastries to-go for a late breakfast. I can’t remember exactly what we had (I know there was a quiche, a chocolate chip thing, and several miniature bites of goodness), but I can say that their selection of pastries, terrines, bread and other picnic-perfect wonders was the nicest we saw anywhere.

From there, we made our way to Notre-Dame, where we spent a good while in awe of the rose windows before leaving to find coffee and a public restroom (the latter was easy – a free public toilet was just behind the cathedral.) We tried and failed to get into Sainte-Chapelle (some confusing construction and a long line of ambiguous purpose deterred us) before giving up and crossing back over the Seine, where we wandered along the river, bought two crepes from a rude man, and eventually veered off the main strip and found a cafe on Rue Jacob, where we had salad, coffee and french onion soup.

We continued on along Rue Jacob until it turned into Rue de l’Université, which made for a pretty, relatively quiet walk. Our main goal was to reach the Eiffel Tower via the Place des Invalides, but we also wanted to have a peek at 81 “Roo de Loo,”  Julia Child’s first home in France. Except I remembered it wrong, and we photographed 80 Roo de Loo instead. Oh well.

Place des Invalides was far more stunning than I remembered it, but last time I think I only walked by at a fast clip whereas this time we stopped to admire the mostly empty courtyard and the stonework. Then, the moment Hailey had been waiting for, the Eiffel Tower, which I won’t say more about except that it was shrouded in a haze of smog, but still a beautiful site. We were getting cold, but we pressed on across the Seine and up Av. d’léna to the Arc de Triomphe, which, thanks to some construction scaffolding, was wearing what looked like a diaper. Cold and tired, we stayed in the tunnel under the arch for a looong time trying to decide what to do for dinner. Trying to decide what to do for dinner was an unfortunate theme of the trip, but the plan we landed on was one of our favorite moments, so I am going to save it for a second post. 

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Day 2

After eating breakfast at our apartment (tiny yogurts in glass cups!), we headed out again on the metro and got off at the Bastile stop. Then we made our way through Marais, loosely following a walk in our Rick Steves’ book. I will admit that we set out trying to follow the walk exactly, but failed. We wandered into the Place des Vosges, thought it was not the Place des Vosges, tried to figure out where we went wrong, and left never knowing exactly what we had seen but liking it nevertheless. We ended up on Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish Quarter, which was a narrow, peaceful street filled with pedestrians and lined with shops. I unkinked a little – this was the sort of Paris street I had been hoping to find.

Another odd theme of our trip was our constant search for a quiet cafe at which we could sit and sip coffee. I thought that’s what French people did, yet almost every time we stopped at a likely looking establishment, we were told they only sat people for food service. We finally hit pay dirt at a spot called Korcarz on Rue des Rosiers. I’m not saying the coffee and the pastries were the best, but the street was quiet, a lone violin player on the corner filled the whole space with music that echoed off the cobblestones, and the cafe didn’t mind that we were only after a dink and a snack. To seal my love for Rue des Rosiers, we bought our second crepe of the trip from a nice man a few doors down from the cafe.

After seeing Marais, our second goal of the day was to slowly gather the ingredients for a picnic that we would eat in Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Leaving Rue des Rosiers, we headed toward the Left Bank, stopping to buy some cheese from a woman at a street market. We crossed over onto Ile Saint-Louis, which was an even quieter haven than the streets on our Marais walk. We would have happily spent more time there, but we left after acquiring more picnic goods from a random shop.

We kept hoping to stumble across a shop with the kind of bounty and perfection we saw at Gerard Mulot Boulangerie, but alas, no luck. I am always pressing for new experiences, but I need to remind myself that when you are short on time and you find something good, it often pays to go back to it. After a long and frustrating search for a bathroom (McDonald’s came through) and a last minute quest for a wine shop (seriously, we couldn’t find one and settled on something from the equivalent of a bodega), we finally reached the park, dragged some chairs into a good position to take in the view, and ate our spoils.

Our plan was to end the day at the Louvre, which is open late on Wednesdays, but I was less than committed given the price, the limited time frame and the threat of large crowds. We finally decided to go for it and hopped on a bus (good decision – seeing Paris in the glow of the late afternoon was beautiful) that dropped us off near the Champs-Elysees, which I thought would make for a nice walk (bad decision – the park area leading up to the Louvre was much longer than I anticipated, and when we were almost there, we were shooed out because the area closed shortly after sunset.)

Despite my doubts and our unorthodox approach, we both loved the way our Louvre experience turned out. We arrived at about 8, meaning we only had 1.5 hours to spend in the museum, but there was NO line for tickets, and all of the galleries, including the one holding the Mona Lisa, were sparsely populated. We identified a few key things we wanted to see (Mona Lisa, the apartments of Napolean, and a painting involving sisterly nipple-pinching), and we walked fast. The building itself —inside and out—was our favorite part. In the end, we saw a lot in under two hours.

When we left the museum it was nearly 10 and we still wanted to see the Eiffel Tower at night and get a good meal. Debates ensued, followed by a search for an open restaurant. I have been told time and again that the people of France begin their evenings much later than Americans, and that to eat before 9 is a bit odd, and yet one after another restaurant had just closed their kitchen when we arrived. We ended up at Cafe Constant feeling very harried. I had foie gras over lentils, fish and a dessert of stewed prunes that tasted like Christmas.

After a very quick peek at the Eiffel Tower again, which was just a few blocks away, we rushed to catch the last subway train (a subway that stops running was a foreign concept that made me nervous) so we could get a few hours of sleep before heading back to the airport via train in the morning.

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 A few things about Paris:

1) These people have their public transit figured out.* Trains came every three minutes during the day, and the arrival time of the next two trains was posted prominently on digital signs in every station we visited. Even the bus stops had digital arrival time signs.

2) The one thing lacking in the metro system was public art—all of the stations I saw looked exactly the same. Subway art is one of my very favorite things about New York City. It is such an egalitarian offering.

3) Everything is beautiful. Obviously. It is, hands down, one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited. Perhaps the prettiest. It is also just a little bit the same and just a little bit overwhelming in its opulence, especially when you stick to the tourist spots. I think I would miss New York’s architectural diversity and grime.

4) Note to myself: Other cities are not a good place to escape your city. My nerves were a bit rattled on our first day thanks to the annoying whine of hundreds of scooters and motorcycles, which strike a pitch that I have always found especially grating. At times, it didn’t feel like a vacation so much as an annoying afternoon in SoHo.

5) Despite the exhausting hills and stairs (oh so many stairs!), we loved Montmartre and loved staying in an Air B&B apartment. The neighborhood was quiet, friendly and charming. We weren’t far from a metro, so it didn’t feel out-of-the-way at all. And since I live on the biggest hill in Brooklyn, I felt right at home.

 

* I can’t neglect to mention that on my first visit to Paris 11 years ago, the metro wasn’t really running at all thanks to a massive public strike that was one of a couple of things that nearly ruined that trip. But when they decide to turn it on, it works great.

Lately

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Aside from moving, here’s what’s been going on around here the past few weeks:

1) A couple weekends ago, Jeff had to take pictures at a poetry event on Governor’s Island, a strange former military base that is just a 10-minute ferry ride from Brooklyn or Manhattan. Most of the buildings and houses are still there but now empty and surrounded by rolling lawns and big trees, so it feels like stepping into a small, sleepy town or a college campus.

2) Edible Manhattan sent me to the Berkshires for a travel piece, and I came home Goggling real-estate. Jeff couldn’t go, so I posted on Facebook asking for a companion and ended up spending two slightly awkward nights in the bridal suite of a B&B with the lovely Lea, a friend of Jeff’s who I had previously met on only one occasion. By day, we talked non-stop, ate lots of local cheese and met amazing people, like the woman who just launched this CSA farm on the site of Herman Melville’s former home, Arrowhead.

3) I finally told my Moth GrandSLAM story! It went really well, and I had a great time even though I didn’t win (my score was a respectable 9.0) Ignore my forced smile—I was happy but dreading the awkward, on-stage small talk that I knew would follow the curtain call.

4) On our way home from Manhattan one Friday eventing, Tobia and I caught the last half of a production of Romeo and Juliet that was being staged on 5th Ave. Even though we caught the death scenes instead of the love scenes, I left feeling like the high rent and the hassle of the city are all worth it for moments like this.

A traditional trip to England with my own, personal photographer

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Truth: I am partial to strange adventures marked not by their potential for beauty or danger but by a particular kind of mundane novelty. Take, for example, my trip on the F two weeks ago or my desire to drive between my hometown in Oklahoma and my friend Tobia’s hometown in  Manitoba simply because one is almost exactly straight north of the other (a plan that is known simply known as “Drive Straight Up” in our household.) Having impulses like this requires friends who share them, and my English friend Peter has always been a fan to my quirky-travel flame. So deep is our friendship and so odd our travel impulses that we have long conspired to join our families by marrying two of our cousins in a wedding that would (must) take place in the Azores simply because the Azores exist roughly half-way between our two nations.

But when Peter married Richard last March, it wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic but on his native soil, and instead of embarking on a random adventure, the occasion resulted in the most traditional trip to England I’ve ever taken. “In a decade of knowing you, how is this the first time you’ve taken me to an English garden? Or a manner house? Or Stonehenge?” I asked him half-way through the trip. “What have we been doing all these years?” “Clearly, I’ve failed you,” Peter said. Hardly.

Luckily, all the wonderful, traditional Englishness was documented by my own personal photographer, who I have vowed I will never again travel without, even if she is my sister. Hailey is blogging about our trip this week over on her website, sharing lots of pictures of me sipping tea, eating pudding and climbing castle walls. I stole the photos above from her website, yet another infraction in a long history of sisterly stealing, I’m sure. But if you hire her to be your personal photographer, she will forgive me.

Her most recent post documents my favorite day of the trip, which involved a lesson in rhubarb forcing and advice on bicycle riding from Peter’s father and a caravan picnic and a curry dinner prepared by his mother, my “English parents,” who I adore more than all the F-trains and Azores combined.

The F (mostly) underground

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Our adventure last week on the F was mostly about seeing what was on street level since we usually spend so much time below ground, but we also visited stations that we had never been to at all, and we encounter a lot of interesting spaces, so we tried to document the stations themselves as well as the view up above. We started strong, pulling out our little signs at ever stop, but as we grew tired and rush hour closed in around us, we slacked a little. Plus, all of the above-ground stops in Brooklyn look similar.

I’m a huge fan of subway art. I can’t help but appreciate the fact that even simple bands of colored tile took time to build and required decisions that could have just as easily been rubber-stamped into uniformity. And the real art − it just makes me love New York City so hard. Art in public places is just such a decent thing to do.Plus, many of the subway art projects are full of history and whimsy, two of my favorite things. The MTA has a website and even an app dedicated to art throughout their system, but I have purposely avoided it because I much prefer to stumble upon things and be amazing in the middle of a boring day. I did consult the website briefly today, however, and realized that we missed seeing some great work at a few of the stations we visited. Oh well – next time.

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Notes:

  • Queens, what the heck is going on with your cavernous subway stations? You will never fill that space. It isn’t even walkway space, it is just there. I really want an answer to this. Why?
  • We only encountered three or four escalators, but we relished them. Elevators = time sucks.
  • I love the underground shops, especially at Jackson Heights. I like the fact that flower shops are a popular underground choice — apparently people still like to arrive at their destination with a nice bouquet.
  • I think the hallway at 7th Ave. might be infinite.

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  • Least impressive art: The strange circles at Kew Gardens. I don’t think they are even listed on MTA’s website. I would like to believe that this is some form of really boring community improvement project or graffiti.
  • Most impressive art (that we saw): Delancey. I have never seen the cherry trees on the opposite platform up close, but I love them, and seeing them gives me a visceral desire to hold these little cherries in my hand again.
  • Most icky station award goes to Lexington Ave, of all places, thanks to a construction project.

 

You can see all of our underground photos below. Click on any of them to open a slideshow. 

The whole F-ing thing

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We were actually riding the R when Loes first told me about her idea for a big adventure. She wondered what it would be like to ride one subway line from beginning to end, getting off at every stop to see what there was to see above ground. I loved it imediatly: It was a challenge, a grand adventure, a way to grab this massive city and put your arms around it. I was in. Right there on the R, we decided that the F would be the best choice for a maiden voyage, not only because it runs thorough three of the five boroughs, but because it is one of our two neighborhood trains. We were having this conversation in a subway car, so Loes’s husband, Eli, immediately went to the wall map to help us grasp the logistics. He reported that the F has 45 stations. We did some quick math, allowing for travel time to our starting point in Queens and allowing for about 12 minutes between trains as well as some downtime for lunch.

By the time we were all ascending the escalators at Jay Street-MetroTech, I had reached this conclusion: In the time it would take us to ride the F from Queens to Coney Island, we could drive all the way to Indiana. I was still in.

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Let me be clear: We weren’t just riding the F. Riding the F from one end point to another would only take about one hour and 45 minutes, plus travel time to and from home. But staying underground is what we do all the time; we wanted to know what was above ground. Does Avenue X have an air of mystery? Is Forrest Hills a verdant oasis? (Spoiler alert: no and no.) To be efficient, we would have to get off the train, get above ground, take a photo, and get back to the platform in time to catch the very next train. As it turns out, efficiency is hard.

After a few weeks of discussion and two postponements, Loes and I left our building (she is my upstairs neighbor) at about 8:30 last Wednesday morning and headed for the F. We returned just before 11 p.m., victorious, with sand from Coney Island clinging to our calves. A few notes and takeaways:

  • We thought about coming up with rules about how and where we took the photos, but we decided that might be too limiting, so the only consistent factors are Loes and/or I and our little station signs, which really helped us remember where we were when we reviewed the pictures later.
  • Our main goal was to make sure that every photo said something about the area around the station. Most of the photos were taken within about 30 feet of the station entrance, but a few times we ventured further to include a landmark or get a better feel for the block.
  • Wednesday was the hottest day of the year so far.

  • The hardest part (which I didn’t anticipate) was the temptation to linger in the really neat and inviting places, like Roosevelt Island, Bryant Park and Carroll Gardens. The photo above was taken from the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
  • The most surprisingly easy part was the train itself: Almost all of the trains arrived at 4-8 minute intervals. In fact, we missed a number of them because we couldn’t get back to the platform in time.
  • Rats: ZERO!
  • Like any quest, we had our ups and downs. We stayed on Roosevelt Island for two hours and seriously considered staying all day. It was 2 p.m., and we were only a quarter of the way through our journey. And it was so nice there. But we pressed on. By lower Manhattan our energy was way low, and we did the math and estimated that we were unlikely to reach Coney Island before 9 p.m. We almost threw in the towel but decided to go at least as far as our “home” station at 15th St.-Prospect Park. Then we hit the above-ground stations, and it was much easier to get a photo of the streetscape below without missing trains, so we made up time and kept going.
  • We also took photos inside most of the stations, but I think that deserves another post.

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  • Almost every New Yorker I’ve told about this project reacted with some level of revulsion. Apparently this is the last thing most people ever want to do.
  • Favorite stations: Parson’s Blvd., in part because of a nice pizza vendor; Jackson Heights; Roosevelt Island; 42nd St. (Bryant Park); West 4th (we found a little farm stand!); Carroll St.; and 18th Ave.

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  • Biggest letdown: Neptune Ave. Don’t you want it to be fantastic? It isn’t.
  • Only time we felt unsafe: Walking barefoot on the beach at Coney Island. I was doing the math on my last tetanus shot.
  • We did reach the beach just in time to see the last light of sunset. We spread out a blanket and watched the stars come out.

Life in New York City has a way of making me feel a bit caged – I spend most of my time within a 15-block radius of my apartment, and when I do venture out, I usually disappear into a tunnel and emerge on the other side while the points in-between remain deeply other, shrouded. Putting a place with a name made everything from Kew Gardens to King’s Highway feel just a little bit more my own. My city, the whole F-ing thing.

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You can check out all of our photos below. Click on any of them to open a slideshow. I only labeled the ones in which the sign was hard to read. In a few of them, like West 8th St., “you can see the train coming in our eyes,” as Loes put it. We became increasingly focused on not missing trains as the day wore on.